Radical Ideas at Work in Education
A million brainstorms are floating around out there: We found 10 that are taking hold in innovative schools and districts across the country. See which ones will work for you.
Make Learning Online Mandatory
The thinker: Thomas Watkins, former state superintendent for Michigan
The idea: Under a comprehensive high school reform law that will take effect in the fall with the arrival of ninth graders, Michigan is the first state to require that high school students have at least one online learning experience before graduation. The program builds on the state’s virtual high school, which began in 1999 and serves approximately 6,000 students per year. Several urban districts had also tried out virtual programs for students who had disengaged or dropped out.
Although the guidelines won’t be set until August, blended courses as well as pure online learning will probably qualify. The online experience may also include test preparation or college counseling in addition to virtual field trips or participating in online clubs and teams. Proponents made the case that many schools lack on-site upper-level instruction, while online learning is flexible and can engage struggling students. “Unless someone says you have to have something, a lot of people will not do it,” says Watkins, referring to the law’s requirements. “I just felt that if we were going to move into the 21st century, we should do so boldly.”
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Trash Windows and Go “Open Source”
The thinker: Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology for the 53,300-student Plano, Texas, school district
The idea: Uttering the words “wide open” and “public school” in the same sentence tends to make administrators shudder. But creating a virtual world with no barriers is the idea behind the open-technology movement. Open technology includes the use of open-source operating systems, applications, and content; open standards for interoperability; and open hardware.
Developed collaboratively and offered at little or no cost, open-source technology can be a powerful new element in district programs that have long relied on proprietary and sometimes costly software. Including applications like the browser Firefox and operating systems like Linux, open-source technologies are free, continually updated, and—say many—the wave of the future for school information systems. “It’s easy to pooh-pooh open source,” Hirsch says, “when in reality Amazon and Google are built on open technologies. The rest of the world gets open technology, and we’ve got to catch up.”
Open applications can be freely modified by the district or school. Open-source versions exist for nearly every major administrative and instructional system out there. And some of them are just as bulletproof—if not more so—than their commercial equivalents, say proponents. “People are attracted to open-source technology not just because it’s cheaper but because it often has more features, is updated more regularly, and can be copied and sent home,” says Hirsch. “You can’t hand kids or parents a copy of Photoshop, but you can hand them a copy of Gimp [an open-source alternative].” What’s more, by using a variety of programs, schools can offer more to their students for less.
Plano has placed 3,500 refurbished computers in the homes of its low-income students. Licensing Microsoft Office is not an option, but kids can do what they need to with Open Office. “We’re only going to use the proprietary software that makes the most sense,” Hirsch explains.
Very rarely does a district switch overnight from proprietary to open technology, and in most cases the goal is to have a compatible mix of both types of systems in place. In some districts, the open-source effort begins with applications that teachers or administrators want to use or just start using on their own. Lesson-planning software like Moodle or assignment-sharing programs like QUIA are examples. In other cases, district leaders learn about and make the shift from the central office with little apparent difference to teachers and students.
Hirsch says the biggest challenge is getting school administrators to rethink the purchasing paradigm. “There’s a lack of awareness about the amount of open technology available,” Hirsch notes, “and people say, ‘Why change? What we have is working.’”
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Get Teachers Training 24/7
The thinker: Mark Gura, coordinator of outreach programs at Fordham University’s Regional Educational Technology Center
The idea: Encourage staff to use virtual meeting places to share best practices. Blogs are also a perfect vehicle by which groups of teachers can have discussions and ask questions of one another. The threads of conversation are preserved, and archived discussions offer a trove of information available round the clock.
Other group work tools include goodies like survey and polling functions, photo galleries and bulletin boards, and professional profile creators. “Often, when a detail is forgotten or overlooked, formal professional development is not required as a remedy. Simply touching base, often briefly, with a co-learner is enough,” Gura says. “The detail is gone over, and things are back on track. The moment is ripe for educators to harvest the web’s latest dimension, the social digital-connectivity craze. This is a serendipitous development online because what is now being offered is the very thing that educators need most.
”Years ago, creating such a community was a near impossible dream, Gura says. First off, it required still more professional development (PD) as potential members of the community were taught how to use computers. This is no longer the case. The younger crop of teachers already has tech skills, to a large degree, and the technology has evolved to be much more reliable and user friendly.
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Merge Resources With Neighbor Districts
The thinker: William Eggers, global director at Deloitte Research, Public Sector
The idea: Public schools in the U.S. could save an estimated $9 billion a year—the equivalent of funding for 900 new schools or more than 150,000 teachers—by combining just one-quarter of their noninstructional service costs with other school districts, according to a study released by Deloitte Research and the Reason Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy research group. For schools looking into adopting the “65 percent initiative,” consolidating services can help achieve the goal of putting more funds into the classroom.
Hundreds of districts are already consolidating portions of their operations with others to save money, attract higher-quality staff, and reduce possible political turmoil caused by district consolidation. “It’s a basic business practice that government and the private sector already are engaging in,” Eggers says. “No one likes to give up control, but with this you’re not giving up political control but gaining economies of scale.
”Consolidating noninstructional service costs can work for small and large school districts, but any consolidation must take place in a straightforward fashion. Common consolidations include transportation systems, special ed, foreign-language instruction, human resources, food service, finance, and insurance. After assessing the current service structure, a business case must be made with input from staff and stakeholders. Open communication is vital, Eggers says. A governance board should oversee the shared service, striking a good balance between accountability and flexibility.
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Put Video Games in Classrooms
The thinker: James Paul Gee, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the author of Power Up: What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy
The idea: Gee says complex video games engage kids in ways that modern classrooms simply don’t approach. “This country has to make a choice. In the 1980s, there was very deep interest in teaching every American child how to think,” Gee says. “Today we have a fact fetish.” Plopping a student in front of educational software—so-called edutainment—doesn’t cut it. Why not? Because educational software is based on learning facts, not on solving complex problems, collaborating with other players, and developing new worlds and personas.
Computer specialist Bill MacKenty concurs. He has taught at the K–8 Edgartown School on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts for the past six years. He is certain that using video games is the way to reinvigorate education for all those “digital natives” running around our schools. “It blows my mind the insane amount of time, energy, and effort that kids put into playing video games,” he says. MacKenty consults with teachers about their curriculum, then incorporates popular games like Age of Mythology and Civilization into the learning plan and one or two exemplary educational programs such as Oregon Trail. He says the role of the educator is to facilitate reflection, buffering the game playing with questions before, during, and after. “If you stick a kid in front of a game for an hour and expect something magical,” MacKenty says, “you’re going to be disappointed.”
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Abolish Grade Levels by Age Groups
The thinkers: Roger Sampson, Alaska commissioner of Education & Early Development, and Richard DeLorenzo, superintendent of Chugach (AK) School District
The idea: If you want to differentiate learning, do away with age groups. That means that every student should be able to proceed at his or her own pace, even if it means staying in school until old enough to drink legally—or graduating before puberty.
At Chugach School District in Chugach, Alaska, there are no grades and no grade levels. Each student has an individual learning plan (ILP), and students are gathered in multi-age, multilevel groups, advancing when ready. Students must show proficiency in 10 standards, including technology, mathematics, writing, and science, as well as career development, service learning, and cultural awareness and expression. “Everyone has strengths and weaknesses,” says Debbie Treece, Quality Schools coordinator at Chugach. “It all comes down to ownership of learning.” The idea behind the program is that each child should be educated differently, and that means meeting kids where they are, when they get there. “It’s very freeing for students,” Treece notes.
Chugach uses the Aligned Information Management System (AIMS) to assess kids, measuring their skills and analytical understanding as well as their understanding of content. Alaska is unique in that many students have to travel long distances to get to school. Treece says there are about 100 kids in a homeschooling extension program, and they, too, get the benefit of the ILP model: Parents are trained by the school district. In addition, students who complete their studies but are not quite ready for college can enroll in Anchorage House, a program that bridges the transition from K–12 to higher education.
Treece says that while she believes the students in Chugach are doing much better than many of their peers in more traditional schools, the mandates of No Child Left Behind can complicate matters. For instance, students are supposed to be tested at grade level—but Chugach doesn’t have grades and had to apply for a waiver from the state. “We’re also penalized in a sense because schools are judged on their graduation rates,” Treece explains. “We allow students to graduate when they’re ready.”
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Put Students to Work (Part 1)
The thinker: Dennis Littky, cofounder and codirector of the Big Picture and coauthor of The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business
The idea: Schools must connect students and the school to the community. That can be done by sending students out to learn from mentors in the real world and by allowing the school to serve as an asset to the local community. At Highline Big Picture High School in Burien, Washington, outside Seattle, kids go to school three days a week. On the other two days, students have real-world experiences called LTIs (Learning Through Internship) in which they delve into a subject of their choosing. Jeff Petty, principal at Highline Big Picture, says the goal of the school is to get every child ready for college. That’s a big job, considering that almost all his students are below grade level. Seventy-nine percent of Highline’s students are on free and reduced lunch, and 40 percent have individual education plans (IEPs).
But that doesn’t discourage Petty and his staff. “We have one student who looks pretty dismal on paper,” he says. “But he really loves skateboarding and drawing.” Petty says the boy didn’t see any connection between school and his interests until he had his first job-shadowing experience. The ninth grader visited Grindline, a skateboard-park design firm. The student spoke with one of the owners, who had graduated from college with a degree in English. “He told [the student] that he doesn’t really use his English degree every day, but at least three times a week, it’s his job to write proposals for new parks. It was the first time the boy connected school with work.
”Personalizing education is one way to grab kids’ attention and get them to go along for the ride, according to the Big Picture philosophy. “It’s my opinion,” Petty says, “that schools fail students and not the other way around. Most schools really kill the desire to learn. We’re telling students that what they’re interested in matters.”
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Put Students to Work (Part 2)
The thinker: Theodore Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and author of How Schools Fail Kids and How They Could Be Better
The idea: Sizer thinks schools should focus on provoking students to learn how to learn. The School Without Walls in Rochester, New York, seizes upon this concept. The school’s curriculum is based on active learning and constructivist theory. That means students are involved in every part of the learning process, beginning with the development of a brand-new curriculum each year. For instance, during the O.J. Simpson trial, students wanted to study criminal justice. After 9/11, they were fascinated by politics and religion. The students take broad topics and drill down, refining and prioritizing subtopics in order to come up with three major themes for study. Students also create a chart of available resources, such as Internet sites, literature, local experts, and audio-video elements, that they can use to deepen their understanding of the topic. Principal Dan Drmacich believes that when kids are actively involved in developing their own curriculum, the learning is richer and deeper.
Assessment is also student-centric at School Without Walls. Drmacich believes that “ongoing relationships between students and teachers are the heart and soul of the school,” and assessment is based on ongoing “touchpoints” between students and adults. Kids must keep a daily journal for their advisers in which they can talk about anything that is on their minds, academic or otherwise.
Advisers meet bimonthly with students to discuss the journal as well as academics and personal issues. Students also maintain subject-area portfolios. Before graduation, they are required to complete an eight-month senior project that is assessed by two classmates, two teachers, and two outside experts.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for this type of school is the emphasis on standards-based learning. “It’s definitely problematic to [use this method and] teach to the standards,” Drmacich says, noting that New York State has five high-stakes standardized tests that kids must pass in order to graduate. So problematic is this emphasis on standardized learning, in fact, that the School Without Walls and 27 other members of New York’s Performance Standards Consortium Schools took their battle to be different to court. Eventually, the 28 schools received a waiver to operate as they have been doing. But Drmacich says when the waiver expires in 2012, who knows what will happen? “We’re working on research that will convince [the state] that this works,” Drmacich says. “I am convinced passionately that this is the right way to teach.”
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Do More Testing
The thinker: Allan Olson, president and CEO of the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA)
The idea: Testing as it stands now is enough to raise administrators’ frustration levels, to say nothing of the expense involved, but Olson says it’s still not enough. “The only option, given NCLB, is to create parallel testing in schools,” says Olson. “NCLB doesn’t attend to the growth of children. It only gets kids over the bar.”
Ginger Hopkins, assistant superintendent of academics and accountability in Beaufort County (SC) School District, says she feels that the state tests distract educators from real assessment of their students. Hopkins says she doesn’t get any true diagnostics back from the state, so NWEA’s computer adaptive MAP tests are critical. The MAP tests are given in the fall and spring and allow Hopkins to create individual growth charts for every student, giving her a bird’s-eye view of any patterns that emerge.
“Some schools appear to be doing really well on the state tests,” she says, “but the MAP shows these children aren’t making their own personal growth charts.” Other schools, she notes, may look as if they’re struggling, but the kids are actually right on target in adding skills. What that means is that down the line, the kids who appear to be cutting it will
begin to slip. With the MAP tests in hand, Hopkins can intervene right when things begin to go bad—something that the state tests don’t begin to capture.
“I really feel that the state tests are like a magician’s sleight of hand. We’re not catching important things that we should,” Hopkins notes. “I worry about what people are missing and how that’s going to affect our kids.”
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Show Them the Money
The thinker: Sue Hildick, president of Foundations for a Better Oregon and the Chalkboard Project, both based in Portland
The idea: The Chalkboard Project’s Open Book$ program enable the public to glimpse financial information about school districts around the state. The initiative covers five categories: teaching and student resources, central administration, business services and technology, principal’s office and buses, and buildings and food. It will be available as a calculator tool on school district web sites in Oregon by September.
Users can compare districts with one another and with state and national averages. Local districts will be able to insert messages to explain any anomalies. “We think it will work because we spent so much time asking the public what they would like to see,” says Hildick. “Since we launched the site in test, districts have embraced this with open arms. It’s going to get everyone on the same page at the same time. It’s not perfect, but it’s a terrific improvement over what the public had before.”
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Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.